There is no denying the horse-human connection.
“Horses have an innate ability to pick up on the emotions we humans express but unlike human interactions, it is always without judgement or shame,” explained Fran Natoli, owner of Arise Equine Therapy in Foristell. “Hands-on activities that engage all our senses coupled with the emotional connections formed with the horses, solidify learning much differently than traditional talk therapy. Horses mirror our emotions and give insight into our feelings.”
At Arise, equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP) is used to treat conditions such as anxiety/depression, PTSD, substance abuse, grief, dementia, traumatic brain injuries, physical/emotional trauma and more. For individuals who do not achieve results with traditional counseling/psychiatry, working with a non-judgmental horse can result in enhanced problem solving skills, improved stress tolerance, better self confidence and deeper relationships.
Because horses are prey and herd animals, they are extremely vigilant of their surroundings and are highly sensitive. Their feedback is provided earlier and more consistently than with a human therapist. The horse also has an innate tendency to mirror the human’s behavior, movements and emotions, which helps the handler become more aware of himself or herself.
“Equine therapy is a valuable resource that is, quite literally, saving lives,” Natoli said.
Her passion for helping people through horses began when she was a volunteer for a local therapeutic riding program.
“I became drawn to the behavioral and emotional healing (that occurs) with horses,” she explained. “Fascination of the transformation I was witnessing sent me on a mission to create Arise (in 2011) and provide equine assisted therapy dedicated to mental wellness and personal development.”
Arise uses the Eagala Model of EAP. Founded in 1999, the method involves the participation of an equine specialist, a mental health professional, clients (handlers) and horses in ground-based (no riding) sessions that require nothing of the horse other than being who and what they are.
According to the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, founder of the Eagala Model, the goal of the human-horse interactions is to guide clients to listen to their inner thoughts and feelings while connecting and reflecting on what is happening in the arena. EAP with the Eagala model is effective because it embraces the neuroscience that humans learn best by doing. The model presents a hands-on approach where clients are given the space to project and analyze their situations, make connections and find their own solutions. Since they are personally led, those solutions tend to be deeper, more profound and longer lasting.
Horses react only to the client’s behaviors and emotions and are not biased by their physical appearance or past mistakes – this is a critical component of therapy because of the self-esteem and self-confidence it infuses into the sessions.
Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT), with locations in Wildwood and Town & Country, works primarily with clients with physical disabilities. Their staff is trained in Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH) and Spirit Horse International, both are certifying therapeutic horsemanship training centers. Equine Assisted Therapy has helped clients with autism, Down syndrome, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy as well as disabled veterans and stroke and paralysis patients.
“Equine therapy is life changing. I’ve seen kids who were told they would never walk and they walked,” LuLu Bogolin, executive director of EAT Wildwood, said. “We don’t allow anyone to use the word ‘non-verbal,’ instead we say ‘pre-verbal’ because I cannot tell you how many kids I’ve seen who had never spoken but they leave here speaking.”
Bogolin started out as an equine volunteer because of her daughter’s love of horses. But it was ultimately her son, who has special needs, and his life-changing experience with equine therapy that propelled her to make it her life’s work.
Bogolin has a theory of why equine therapy is so effective, which has to do with the innate nature of the horse.
“Horses are prey animals and when we have a person who is experiencing mental or physical challenges, they are also living in this ‘prey mode.’ They are equally living in survival mode and the horses sense it. The client and the horse have an immediate understanding with each other in a way the rest of us won’t understand,” she said. “Children with trauma will do more for a horse than for a human who they have already been traumatized by. They will want to accomplish more in their next steps in therapy because it changes their outlook. I believe that’s the key to horse therapy.”
Just the act of sitting on the horse engages and activates every abdominal muscle in the body. For spinal cord injuries and stroke victims, this act alone can help immensely with balance, coordination and core strength.
“We had a client who had a massive stroke at 35 years old. After completing all of his physical therapy but still unable to walk, he was told there was nothing more that could be done. After riding with us for five years, he now walks, drives and just had his third baby. He also got his job back at the law firm he was with before his stroke,” Bogolin said.